Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

Yang Jian
The spirit of China's space exploration has increased the country's space presence and motivated generations of astronauts and other Chinese citizens.
Yang Jian

Editor's note:

Since its founding over a century ago, the Communist Party of China has taken upon itself to serve the people with a spirit that includes devotion and dedication to common good. Understanding the whole spectrum of the CPC spirit provides a key to understanding how China has grown into what it is today. In this series, Shanghai Daily uses real stories to explain what comprises this ideal that unites the nation and her people in their effort to create a better world for all.

Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

Onlookers watch the launch of the Tianzhou-3 cargo vessel at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province.

The spirit of China's space exploration has not only made the country the world's third-largest nation in terms of space presence but also has motivated generations of astronauts and other Chinese citizens.

These ideals – the "special ability to endure hardship, fight, overcome difficulties and contribute" – were enshrined by the central government after the successful mission of Shenzhou-6 in 2005, a milestone for China's manned space program.

Now, the Shenzhou-14 astronauts are in orbit for a six-month mission. They will help to complete the construction of China's space station, the final goal of China's manned space program initiated three decades ago.

The astronauts, including two males and a female, who were sent into orbit on June 5, are waiting for the arrival of the Mengtian, or "Dream Sky," lab module, which is set to be launched soon. The astronauts will help assemble the module and enter it to carry out its tasks.

China's Tiangong space station will be completed then, with a three-module configuration consisting of the core module called Tianhe and two lab modules, Wentian and Mengtian, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The name of the space station, Tiangong, which means "heavenly palace," comes from the Chinese legend about the lunar goddess Chang'e, who flew to the moon and made it her permanent home after drinking a magic elixir that gave her eternal life. The story speaks of a dream home the Chinese have long envisioned in the sky.

China embarked on a "three-step" strategy to boost its space exploration in 1992 when constructing a manned orbiting laboratory was still a flight of fancy.

At that time, the former Soviet Union had launched three generations of spaceships and constructed two space stations, while the United States had unveiled its new space shuttle, the STS Endeavor.

The first step of China's strategy, which started from scratch, was to send astronauts into space and ensure their safe return.

The second step was developing advanced space flight techniques and technologies including extravehicular activity and orbital docking.

The third step is to assemble and operate a permanent manned space station, which is about to be achieved in the near future.

Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

The space suit of China's first "taikonaut" Yang Liwei is exhibited at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

To endure hardship and be ready to sacrifice

In January 1998, an elite team of 14 members was selected from 1,500 outstanding People's Liberation Army air force pilots to become China's first batch of astronauts.

One of the first training sessions was to endure pressure equaling eight times that of gravity in a high-speed spinning centrifugal machine. During that training, some astronauts recalled, their faces were squeezed out of shape and they felt difficulty breathing.

They were allowed to press a red button beside their hands to stop the machine once they could not hold on, but so far nobody has ever touched that button, said the Chinese female astronaut Wang Yaping.

In September 2008, when astronaut Zhai Zhigang of the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft was about to conduct China's first extravehicular movement, a fire alarm was suddenly triggered in the exit tunnel.

The milestone spacewalk was broadcast live and numerous audiences from across the world watched the historical moment.

Zhai decided to ignore the potential danger and walked out of the spaceship, holding the national flag of China.

"I told myself no matter at what cost, including my life, I must complete this mission and let Chinese flag fly in space," Zhai said.

Yang Liwei, China's first "taikonaut" for the Shenzhou-5 mission in October 2013, recalled the intolerable feeling as if "all organs were about to be smashed" after the launch of the rocket.

"I was not afraid of sacrifice at that time, but feared the mission would be a failure if I died, which would add years to the realization of China's space dream," Yang said.

The strong vibration caused by an unexpected resonance lasted for 26 seconds and finally disappeared. Yang made a successful round trip to space.

Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

Chinese astronauts conduct extravehicular activity during the latest mission in September.

Self-dependent innovation

Tens of thousands of Chinese scientists and engineers have been pushing space exploration boundaries independently over the past three decades.

China launched its first experimental spacecraft, Shenzhou-1, with no crew on board, in November 1999. Three more spacecraft were sent into space between 2001 and 2002, before the astronaut Yang entered space with Shenzhou-5 in October 2003.

The country's first spacewalk was completed by Shenzhou-7 astronaut Zhai in September 2008, and two female astronauts were sent into space – Liu Yang in the Shenzhou-9 mission in 2012, and Wang Yaping in the Shenzhou-10 mission in June 2013. Wang also entered the space station and conducted an extravehicular spacewalk in the Shenzhou-13 mission from October 2021 to April 2022.

The process was full of challenges and setbacks.

A major malfunction occurred during the final experiment before China's first space docking mission, scheduled for November 3, 2011.

The prototypes of the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 module failed the last thermal vacuum test. The two parts could not be unlocked and separated, which might lead to a delay in the launch of the Tiangong-1, China's first space laboratory.

Wang Shuqun, chief technician at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology and the team leader of the docking system assembly team, worked overnight for several days to analyze the malfunction and found that the key problem was a broken transmission shaft.

The problem was solved only shortly before the mission's launch.

"Over the past 30 years, we have overcome many technical difficulties, such as the technologies of shuttling between space and Earth, extravehicular activity, rendezvous and docking," Yang told Xinhua.

So far, China has sent 14 astronauts into space in over 20 missions.

Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

Astronaut Liu Yang works in the Tianhe space module in September.

Global cooperation

China plans to build the space station into a state-level space lab supporting long astronaut stays and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments, Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, told Xinhua.

To accumulate experience, China launched the experimental space labs Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 in 2011 and 2016. Tiangong-1 tested the rendezvous and docking between spacecraft technologies, and Tiangong-2 carried out more than 60 space science experiments and technological tests.

China officially kicked off the in-orbit construction of its space station by launching the core module Tianhe in April 2021. More than a year later, it launched the space station's first lab module Wentian, which has further upgraded the space station's sci-tech experiment functions.

Wentian, literally meaning "a request to the sky," mainly focuses on the research of life science and biotechnology. Researchers have planned and deployed more than 10 research topics for Wentian in four fields – space life science and biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, space material science, and new space application technologies.

China's space program is aimed at facilitating global consensus on people's shared responsibility in utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes and safeguarding its security for the benefit of all humanity, said Zhou.

China has been actively promoting international cooperation on its space station, including working with the European Space Agency.

China also cooperates with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to solicit scientific research projects on the space station from scientists around the world. It promotes extensive international cooperation in astronaut selection and training, according to Zhou.

Spirit of space exploration motivates generations of Chinese astronauts

Students listen to a livestreamed class given by Chinese astronauts at the Tiangong space station on October 12.

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